Celebration and Lament

The walls had been rebuilt.

The people living in and around the city of Jerusalem had gathered.

Along with the fresh aroma of new lumber from Ezra’s wooden platform and his strong voice ringing out over the hum of the crowd, celebration was in the air! Within the barely-renovated city walls of Jerusalem, there was a party brewing, and it was no token religious observance.

For the first time in a thousand years (Nehemiah 8:17), the Nation of Israel was gearing up for the Feast of Tabernacles. “Booths” — little huts, really -– would be cobbled together from branches and set up on rooftops and in courtyards, and families would live in their booths for seven days to commemorate Israel’s wilderness wanderings. Remember, too, that, although Jerusalem’s protective outer wall had been restored, this is all taking place in a city where many houses had still not been rebuilt, (Nehemiah 7:4).

I’m actually a little jealous when I picture this holiday:

An Annual Camp Out!

Gathering piles of branches with the kids, making a cozy nest inside the booth, and hearing the small voice:

“Tell us again, Mum . . . why are we doing this?”

Then the magic of storytelling under the stars would begin in which history flows from memory into the hearts of another generation — with everything made tangible by the show-and-tell of celebration.

Of course, in the re-telling there would be sadness for Jerusalem was still a city in captivity, its citizens still an oppressed people. Forking over up to 50% of their earnings in taxes to the Persian Empire, they were only just beginning to recover from the exile’s comprehensive shattering of their self-perception as God’s people. They were still in the process of learning their way back into fellowship with God. Governor Nehemiah’s gracious pronouncement to kick-off their feasting was desperately needed:

“Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” —Nehemiah 8:10

And so it is today.

We live with one foot in celebration and the other in lament. Whenever we gather on this planet, it is for an imperfect celebration in which our only hope for joy is to look squarely at the empty seat, at the strained relationships, at the imperfect execution of all our Pinterest-worthy plans. Our only prayer for peace is to own the sadness; to recognize the power that grinding sorrow has over our hearts—and then to throw the door wide open to the feast.

By acknowledging and even embracing lament—an art we have lost here in North America—our celebration can be restored. Our feasting can be deeply sincere, even in a context of deep suffering or deep disappointment.

In the case of Israel, the people had just stood outside for about six hours (yes, stood), “from morning until mid-day,” listening to Ezra as he read aloud to them their saw-tooth record of rebellion. Their tearful response revealed that they were cut deeply with the weight of national failure over the centuries, but Nehemiah’s instructions proclaimed that the time had come for the people to begin, once again, to eat and drink blessing to themselves:

“Go home and prepare a feast, holiday food and drink; and share it with those who don’t have anything: This day is holy to God.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Until Jesus comes, it will be this longing and this feasting that keeps my heart’s sonar trolling for Kingdom shalom. I will lament the family that could have been if not for alcoholism, if not for mental illness and garden-variety selfishness.

But when I grasp warm hands and gaze at the faces around my table, by faith I will celebrate the family that is because of the forgiveness that lubricates our relational gears; because of much-beloved friends who have been grafted in; because of the cords of grace that hold our hearts in joy.


This post first appeared in SheLoves Magazine (November 2015).

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45 thoughts on “Celebration and Lament”

  1. You are a terrific storyteller, Michele! I felt like a part of the rooftop booth gathering when reading your words. Today I wish we’d pay more attention to oral story telling to children, more sharing of past generations. So important for lessons learned. Blessings to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Carrie, for your encouraging words, and I agree – story-telling is “low-tech” but it is eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart transmission of truth, and very important. Blessings to you as well!


  2. Michele, this post was a feast for me! The whole story of Ezra and Nehemiah are some of my favorites in the Old Testament. Your descriptions bring it all to life and very much cause me to want to be a part of such a celebration! What excellent images you have painted!! Blessings to you!


    1. Oh, me too, Pam! I walked through Nehemiah for six months with my ladies SS class, and blogged about him every week during that time, so he’s an old friend, and God used him to teach me on so many topics! That was such a dark time in Israel’s history, and yet He was definitely at work behind the scenes.


  3. Lamenting and celebrating definintely have their places–we weep for a night but joy comes in the morning. I think the lamenting and weeping clear the heart for acknowledging the blessings and celebrating with true thanksgiving.


  4. I love the opening paragraph! Along with the fresh aroma …. This past winter I read in chronological order the OT starting with the exile and the return. Love Ezra & Nehemiah! Rich, rich writing! Have a blessed thanksGIVING, Michele – we’re neighbors at Kristin’s and you’ve already visited me this morning! xo


  5. Michele, I’ve never imagined this feast in this way! You really brought it to life for me. I love the thought of storytelling around a campfire. So sweet. Praying your Thanksgiving is blessed, friend!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes…I am grateful for forgiveness as it has drawn a circle around a family who hurt, who wander, who do not all know Jesus. Yet we are family and we care and we love. I have truly lamented and the words here soothe my heart and soul. Praise God. Thank you, thank you for sharing this and for God bringing me here today.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Such truth and such honesty to your words. It reminds me of seeking what is important when you feel grief and joy having a tug of war inside of you. There is nothing like the time spent with family and the gift that friendships add to your life. Blessings!


    1. We really don’t have a cultural “basket” to put it in, so everyone is uncomfortable if someone shows up for the party with tears.
      And, I agree — definitely a celebration that involved camping would be the best!


  8. Michele,
    This is truly beautiful. It is hard for us to accept that joy and pain can coexist…in this world they have to. The line about “my heart’s sonar trolling for the Kingdom shalom” really hits home. This Thanksgiving was filled with both lament and joy – grateful for things that are and sadness for things that aren’t. It’s times like these that my heart, like yours, is set on eternity. Loved this post!!
    Blessings friend,

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Michele,
    I’m reading in Ezekiel right now during my quiet time, so these verses from Nehemiah really put things in perspective.
    I really appreciate this: “Our feasting can be deeply sincere, even in a context of deep suffering or deep disappointment.” It seems that seeing the contrast between the two is really beneficial in helping us fully experience the feasting. I’ve definitely seen this in my own life.


  10. Michele, this post spoke deeply to my heart this morning because just yesterday I had a beautiful conversation with my dad about this very subject. Thank you for sharing these thoughts and words as has made that conversation even more precious to me. Blessings!


  11. Absolutely love this, Michele: “…I will celebrate the family that is because of the forgiveness that lubricates our relational gears…” I haven’t thought much about lamenting. But now you have me thinking…. Visiting via #testimonyTuesday.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Michele, something brought this post back to my mind and I reread it this morning. So much truth! Paul Tripp says something I thought about, too, that we are living between the already and the not yet. Celebration and lament. To a girl who’s idea of camping is Motel 6, you even made camping sound like fun! LOL


  13. Hi Michele,
    We’re neighbors again at Coffee for your Heart and I’m so glad you shared this again since I missed it the first time! 🙂 I LOVE the story of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the wall and celebrating in booths – -isn’t that an interesting story? I love all the details you supplied to put us in the midst of this story! Enjoyed this so much!


  14. Owning sadness … those two words really struck me today. I often feel ashamed of my moments of sadness. As though I’m complaining or not thankful. But there is healing in the owning of it, isn’t there? Thank you, my friend, for always challenging me!
    Blessings and smiles,


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